Friday, August 31, 2007


I have been wanting to write this blog for a while now. Everyday that I spend in Italy, and spend with Paolo makes me focus more and more on language. In all of the other countries that I went to, although none spoke English as a first language except in London, I was never immersed in the culture enough to start to really try to understand the language. Here it is different, especially being in the south. In Rome, Florence or even Viareggio, I could get by with English relatively easily because they are all popular tourist destinations. In Salento, it is a different story. Although this region is probably one of the most beautiful in all of Italy, it is not a big tourist destination for people outside of Italy. Mainly because the towns are spread apart, and there is no public transportation. So you really need a car to get around here, unless you plan on staying in one little town (or Lecce--which has a population of about 100,000) the entire time.

Sometimes I feel bad, because we are staying at his parents house (they are living at their house near the sea right now) and we spend very little time with them. And the main reason for this is because I can't talk to them. It's really uncomfortable in this particular situation, when you really want to make a good impression, and you cannot have a conversation. So, I can see his mom making assumptions about me--the crazy American girl who takes off around the world by herself...and me about her--the typical Italian mom who wants a woman who will treat her son exactly the same way she does...when in reality, neither is probably the case. But since we can't talk to each other, we will continue to conjure up our own ideas about one least until I learn to speak Italian. I do my best to smile a lot, to help clear the dishes from the table, to offer to help with anything. And Paolo does as much translating as he can, but, until we speak the same language it will be difficult.

The same goes for social interactions. Paolo has a ton of friends, so often we are in a group of people where there might be one other person who speaks English, or a few with limited (very limited) English. I do my best to try to understand the conversations, but they talk so quickly(or at a normal pace, which to me seems like lightening speed.) Slowly I am learning more and more words and phrases, but for the most part, I am completely lost. Again, Paolo does his best to translate...but it's hard for him sometimes because it stops the normal flow of a conversation, and I don't want him to always have to stop what he's talking about to explain it to me.

What's weird is the physical toll it takes on you. By the end of each day, I am exhausted. And I often have a headache. I think it is because my brain never has any quiet time. I am always trying to understand--Paolo, his friends, the radio in the car, billboards, street signs, the TV...even when I zone out, I am still subconsciously taking it all in. Anyone that has lived in another country and learned another language can probably understand what I am talking about--it is a really strange sensation.

When we first got to Morocco, Paolo was having a lot of headaches too, and it was likely because he was only speaking in English, all day every day. And it took a few days for his brain to adjust to it. He's so cute, he tries really hard...and sometimes it is so funny. There are many words in Italian that are very similar to English, so if Paolo doesn't know the word in English, he will say the Italian word but try to Americanize it, in hopes that it's close. We call these "Paolo words" and I could probably write a dictionary of them. And sometimes he learns a new words, but can't recall them perfectly the next time, but he still tries...these are my favorite, and usually I can't help but laugh. A couple that I am particularly fond of are "nerb" (nerd) and "groge" (gross). He sometimes uses "is" and "are" the wrong way, and still has a major problem with "him/her and he/she". But what is interesting is most Italians that speak English have the same problem (at least the ones I have spoken to). He often leaves out the little words (important little words) like "to" and "of" and forgetting the "n't" that turns "can" into "can't". So a normal Paolo sentence might sound like this..."You say me that you can go in the sea because your finger hurts." What he means is "You told me that you can't go in the sea because your toe hurts." (toes in Italian translate directly to "fingers of the feet", so this is why he forgets and calls them fingers). The words "say, told, call, talk" are all synonymous to him. And the can/can't thing can pose a problem, because it changes the sentence to have the exact opposite I always make sure to clarify.

There are things about our language that I've also never thought we use the phrase "take a shower". To Paolo, this makes no sense..."but Maggie, WHERE are you going to take the shower?" The same goes for "taking a walk." In Italian, the direct translation would be "to do a shower." Which to us, sounds really weird. We also say "It drives me crazy" and as you can imagine, it makes no sense to someone who knows the word "drive" to mean either driving a car, or to have determination. And, I've learned that in English we have a word to describe EVERYTHING. In Italian they have a zillion more verb tenses than we do, but we have more adjectives than all other languages combined. For instance--cute, pretty, beautiful, stunning, georgous, nice looking, hot--all basically mean the same thing. In Italian they keep it simple...Bellisimo!

Despite all of the things Paolo still has to learn, he is obviously leaps and bounds ahead of me. And I try to tell him everyday how much I appreciate him talking in my language because I know it is equally exhausting for him. And for all the times I have laughed at a "Paolo word" I know he is waiting patiently for me to start learning Italian...

Which is what I am going to try to do. There is a class at Upper Arlington High School on Thursday nights, that I am going to take (and maybe try to get my parents to take it with me). And in January, I am thinking about coming back to Italy for a few months and living in a small town called Otranto where there is an Italian school that has very intensive courses. I don't think you can truly learn a language unless you are living in a country in which it is spoken--because if you aren't around people who speak it, how will you practice?

Paolo's family has a condo on the sea in Otranto, which will not be occupied throughout the winter, so it would make my living expenses really cheap. And being in the south for an extended period of time would leave me no choice but to speak Italian. The school I am look into into is

Paolo is also going to try to spend some time in the US in the fall, to hopefully pick up some more English...and to meet my friends and parents, and see how I live...

My trip is almost over, but I feel like I have more to look forward to now. I have some hard things to take care of when I get home...but I am really looking forward to seeing my parents, friends (and their new babies!)...and thundercat!

I don't think I can write a reflections blog until I get home, and it sinks in that I am finished with this life altering trip...but I will try to squeeze out a couple more before that.

But, now I must "take a boat ride" with Paolo and his friends for the afternoon...


sognatrice said...

Ooh do I hear you here. I even have my own "Paolo" to go with my experience of really learning Italian; I knew a good bit before we got together, but learned *really* quickly afterwards since he speaks zero English. Of course he still has "Paolo words" in English--usually it's adding "ation" to an Italian word to make it an American noun--"vestitation" would be getting dressed, for example ;)

I had many a head-spinning nights with his friends/family on my way to learning, and I can't say as though I don't zone out every now and again just from the sheer overload, but it happens much less frequently now. Which is nice :)

It'll come, and yes, it'll be *so* much more comfortable to be around his family and friends then...but if they're like my P's family and friends, they'll then switch to dialect b/c they think you can handle it ;)

Tim & Susan said...

Maggie, we've so enjoyed reading about your travels/blog. It's hard to imagine visitng all the places you've been over the past few months. We just sure that you'll have many more experiences ahead of you and we will you only the best, always.

Anonymous said...

Be careful in selecting the school.
I have a friend that was not so happy with Porta d'Oriente.
I suggest you to pay not more than one month; if you are satisfied you can easily prolong.

Do Travel said...

very well written post

Ravi Shah said...

what a fab post, Thanks for sharing